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Spectrum, Wi-Fi and LTE-U: Where goes the neighborhood?

Modern libraries are dynamic community keystones. People of all ages traverse their stacks, computer labs, makerspaces and common areas throughout the course of a day—creating, working and learning. Many elements combine to make them such valuable assets, but one in particular serves as lifeblood in the digital age: broadband internet connectivity. With the E-rate modernization proceeding at the FCC in the rear view mirror, internet policy wonks within the library community have shifted their attention to the bubbling network neutrality debate. But, there’s at least one more front these brave souls – and all library professionals, for that matter – should monitor: radio spectrum allocation.

The radio spectrum is a series of energy currents. In 1985, a regulatory change made it possible for people and businesses to harness the energy in two different bands of these currents (2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz) without first obtaining a license or completing an application. The “permissionless,” or, more commonly, “unlicensed” spectrum may barely be 30 years old, but it has already given birth to technologies we use in our daily lives. For the library community, this includes RFID and, perhaps even more importantly, the nearly ubiquitous Wi-Fi that increases library public internet access capacity, mobility, and varied user experiences.

Tablet and smartphone on top of a laptop.
Credit: miniyo73, Flickr

Wi-Fi uses unlicensed spectrum to connect devices within a local area to the internet. Why is this important to note at this particular moment? Wi-Fi may soon have a neighbor. Several wireless industry players support running Long-Term Evolution (LTE) in the unlicensed spectrum – a scenario they call LTE-U. LTE is the technology your smart devices use to connect to the internet and transmit data. Proponents of LTE-U claim it will offer cellular subscribers a more seamless user experience, and will spur innovation in mobile internet technology by making spectrum use more efficient. But opponents flag concerns about interference that could degrade Wi-Fi performance, and note LTE-U was developed outside of longstanding Wi-Fi standards bodies. So, where goes the neighborhood? Does LTE-U promise problems or progress in the mobile connectivity arena?

This was a major question for debate at a panel discussion on the past and future of Wi-Fi hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus last Friday. Participating on the panel was OITP’s own Larra Clark. She was joined by four other telecom policy experts – Paula Boyd of Microsoft; John Hunter of T-Mobile; David Young of Verizon; and Fred Campbell of the Center for Boundless Innovation in Technology. Although the panelists all celebrated unlicensed spectrum as a tool for innovative uses that add substantial economic value, they sounded varying notes on the virtues of LTE-U. Hunter and Young assured the audience that mobile carriers would work to ensure LTE-U and Wi-Fi fit together as part of a balanced approach to expanding mobile internet connectivity. Boyd was skeptical, pointing out that LTE-U has thus far bypassed international standards bodies. She urged greater vetting and scrutiny.

ALA is keenly aware of the need to ensure that LTE-U plays nicely with Wi-Fi. Clark spoke articulately to the importance of Wi-Fi for library services, for wireless subscribers that use WiFi to contain data plan costs, and for those who rely on free Wi-Fi as their primary online connection. However, she also reflected the conciliatory tone of the discussion when she said that the debate over what to allow into the unlicensed spectrum space should not be seen as “…an ‘either/or’ proposition. Rather,” she noted, “we must protect and advance innovation by ensuring adequate safeguards and continuing conversations among policymakers, innovators, public interest organizations, and industry players on how to maximize the benefit of unlicensed spectrum.”

The ALA Washington Office will continue to lend the library perspective in the ongoing debates and discussions over spectrum policy at the federal level.

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Charlie Wapner

Charlie Wapner is an information policy analyst for the Washington Office.

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